Sunday, July 29, 2007

Delusions of techno-wizardry

Mary Kingsley, intrepid Victorian traveler, was one of the most adventurous of 19th-century European explorers of Africa. Untypical of her gender, she went where men feared to go. She was also untypical in her sensitive appreciation of African culture and thought. But even she never doubted the racial preeminence of Europeans.

She wrote: "All I can say is, that when I come back from a spell in Africa, the thing that makes me proud of being one of the English is not the manners and customs up here, certainly not the houses or the climate; but it is the thing embodied in a great railway engine...[The railway] is the manifestation of the superiority of my race."

Ah! There you have it. High tech equals high culture. Some years ago Rutgers University historian Michael Adas traced this presumed equation in a book titled Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance. Adas documented the many and subtle ways scientific and technological achievements fed a Western sense of racial, religious and cultural superiority -- and buttressed racism and imperialism on the part of developed nations.

When, in the 16th century, Europeans set out to conquer and colonize the non-European world, they believed it was proper that they do so. Their sense of superiority was anchored in the conviction that because they were Christian -- the one true faith -- they were doing God's work.

But -- as Jared Diamond has brilliantly documented -- it was superior science and technology that made their conquests possible: mathematical methods of navigation, sailing ships with superior maneuverability and armament, steel armor, gunpowder.

By the the 18th and 19th centuries -- the great age of European imperialism -- science and technology had begun to replace religion as the primary measure of human worth. Technology provided Europeans with unprecedented control over nature, and seemingly confirmed the superiority of Western thought and culture. Confident that science gave them unique access to universal truths, Europeans set about the subjugation and transformation of "backward" peoples with missionary zeal. The railroad and the gunship became more powerful symbols of manifest destiny than the cross had ever been. Which is not to say that zealous Christian missionaries did not follow in the wake of imperial armies. A subtle change had occurred: It was not so much that God justified the guns, as that the guns justified God.

I have lately been reading William Dalrymple's masterful The Last Mughal, an account of the British subjugation of "heathen" India in the mid-nineteenth century. In their barbarity and cultural vandalism, the British proved themselves no more "civilized" than the people they crushed, but they exculpated their actions with a veneer of superior technology. An Indian scholar wrote: "The [British] have a special aptitude for industry and technology. But their minds, with few exceptions, cannot grasp the finer points of logic, theology and philosophy." As it turned out, technology was enough. At least until Gandhi appeared on the scene.

According to Adas, the terrible slaughter in the trenches of World War I finally caused Europeans to doubt that machines conferred moral superiority. Americans were spared this salutary lesson by arriving late on the battlefields of Europe, and in the aftermath of Great War took up from Europe the mantle of global dominance.

Adas writes: "In the decades after World War I, applied science and technology pervaded American life to a degree that greatly exceeded that experienced by any other society...Henry Ford was widely regarded as the prophet of a new age of 'heroic optimism,' in which science and invention were hailed as the key to American prosperity and the best solution for social ills."

American optimism survived World War II, although the ideology of civilizing backward peoples gave way in the American dispensation to what was perceived as the generous bestowal of technological improvements, even a sharing of wealth. But implicit within the new ideology, says Adas, was a subtle form of cultural imperialism -- the assumed superiority of American cultural values, confirmed by American scientific and technological prowess.

The swift and efficient execution of the First Gulf War, with those dazzling TV clips of laser-guided bombs surgically taking out Iraqi targets, seemed to confirm American technological invincibility. It is hard to find any parallel in history to so swift and decisive a victory, based not upon man-to-man combat, but upon an overwhelming superiority of machines. One is reminded, perhaps, of the exploits of Cortes and Pizarro, who with few men and vastly superior ships and weapons subdued entire civilizations of Native Americans. Their quick and (mostly) bloodless victories were taken as signs of God's favor upon their campaigns. And so, it seems, did many Americans assume a divine mandate in the Gulf.

The Second Gulf War has severely shaken America's smug confidence in invincible technology, and our corresponding assumption of moral and religious superiority. We are learning the lesson that Michael Adas documented a decade-and-a-half ago: The equation of technological preeminence with cultural superiority has a long and dishonorable history.

In recounting that history, Adas quotes the famous 19th-century missionary-explorer David Livingston, summarizing the advantages for Europeans in Africa of vastly superior firearms: "Without any bullying, firearms command respect, and lead [African] men to be reasonable who might otherwise feel disposed to be troublesome." Livingston believed that Western technology justified the European colonization of Africa, even against the "troublesome" wishes of Africans. For him, as for Mary Kingsley, technological sophistication was the measure of human worth.

Science and technology can be boons to humankind, but they do not in themselves convey moral or cultural preeminence. This is apparently a lesson that every generation must learn anew.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.